The Good Niece
Mom’s uncle died today. She was a good niece. Blood is thick. He was a tall man, white-haired, balding, and thin. A face that showed strength, maybe too much of it. They say he beat his wife. My mother’s aunt. Strong. Outspoken. She’d rather live without him.
So he was alone, calling on children and grandchildren. Sometimes a niece who never said no, always opened her door, sat him at her table, welcomed him. She always hovered over and around the people she kept (angelic, really), even hovered above those who came to her stairwell starving. I remember when I was 10. We lived on the corner of Virginia Street and River, in central El Paso, one block away from El Paso High, with its grand pillars and many stairs; it stood there, like a coliseum, proclaiming the name of our town. Our turquoise house with its dark red porch, the color of brick, stood proudly on a corner. I was watching Bewitched, and I heard my mother open the back door, by the kitchen, heard voices in familiar, yet unfamiliar tones. Spanish words. A chorus of voices. There were many faces, lean bodies sitting, staggered along the steps, right out past the screen door, all the way down to the bottom step, the one closest to the hot summer sidewalk, almost white in its glare. They looked about my age, some of them, and much like me. I bet if I had asked them to play kickball, they would have. But I was shy too. We just stared at one another, happy to see someone our age. They were dressed in jeans that were too large, too small, white t-shirts that were torn. Some wore dresses; someone’s hand-me-downs. We looked at each other familiarly; they looked at my clothes, stared shyly at my neatly combed hair. Mother gave them brown paper bags full of clothes, filled to the brim; the girls, looking for frilly things, were more excited than the boys. They took their regular places on the back stairwell. Fourteen steps full. All in a row. My mother fell there once, hurt her back, legs, hips. She rubs them now, without knowing. It’s a natural thing.
The disenfranchised and their children lined up; one on each step. I saw them there, hungrily, eagerly, eating encheeladas with the rust-red sauce my mother made, eating whatever she could rummage from our white Westinghouse. I saw their faces, bent over plates, savoring each bite under the shadow of Mother spooning out seconds. They came regularly, almost every day at times, and she would plan for them, making extra trays, stashing them away. I would ask, “Who is that for?” She’d reply, “For the children that come.”
I remember the phone rang just then. I ran, excitedly, a child’s eagerness at the possibility of news or people promising to come over. The distinctive voice of my mother’s uncle thundered, cavernous over the wire, “Your mother there?” And so I took her, almost clandestinely, to the phone, and like the good child, she would receive him, my father muttering under his breath, cursing the man. But Mother always took him in, patiently, despite Father’s words. Sometimes he’d call when Father wasn’t home. Easier that way.
I remember Uncle’s big blue Cadillac, early ’70s. I was a child then. I sat in the back seat with my grandmother, Sittay-that’s what we called her then-in her black dress, black scarf, while Mom sat in front with her uncle. He drove us to JuÃ¡rez, Mexico; just over the downtown bridge. We were going to the Church of the Virgin, Nuestra SeÃ±ora de Guadalupe, to light candles, to pray for things. Mother couldn’t drive. And Father-Baba, we called him-couldn’t take her. He was too busy knocking on doors, selling things: Levi’s, cobijas, sobrecamas, tennis shoes, door to door in the Segundo Barrio, or in Fabens or Canutillo, over by the levee, or there near the blue and pink houses by the river, behind the ASARCO smelter. So Mother’s uncle fulfilled her small wish. Three women. One man.
We arrived at the steps in front of this Mexican cathedral, walked in. Mother made her way up to the altar, venerated the Holy Virgin; candles were burning like little planets, flickers of light bouncing in and around their spaces, in their red votives, licking glass. Mother knelt in front of her lit prayers, woman of faith. My grandmother and I followed her cue. Our leader. I finished praying quickly, as little girls do; walked around the high-pistachio-green-ceilinged cathedral, wondered why Mother was still prostrate. How could there be so much to pray for? I think she was praying for my brother Albert (Abdallah, that’s his real name). He was in this place called Vietnam. I remember something about him receiving a letter at our house. I was six then. Not long after, he left. It was right after he got married. A big wedding. My brother Bryan got married too, on that same day. It was what Father called a double wedding. I remember, at the reception, everyone in the lobby of the Sheraton on Mesa Street, drinking champagne, huddled in groups, looking up at the TV monitors mounted in corners, close to the ceiling. Everyone was watching this man in a funny suit and helmet. They said he was walking on the moon. My mother missed my brother Albert. She never smiled after he left. I think she thought he was going to die. She kept making promises to God and the saints: If they brought him back, she would give all her money to the poor or find things to do that might honor such a miracle.
When Mother had completed her prayers, she would rise up, a lacey mantilla shrouding her dark hair, and the three of us would file back into Uncle’s big blue Cadillac. He stopped at the old Mexican market. I remember the smell of fruits and vegetables, piled like rocks one above the other, bananas hanging heavily overhead; flavored ices in big clear jars colored these spaces. There were velvet pictures of Jesus and His Mother scattered about, hanging. There were velvet pictures of Elvis, too, and some of naked women. People sell anything. Mother’s uncle bought me a Coke in a bottle. It was ice cold and hard to hold, Hecho en MÃ©xico. I tried hard to taste the difference between that bottle of dark, cold liquid and the kind made in my world, El Paso. We drove back home in the late afternoon, my Coke bottle in my hand, me in the back seat, kicking the light blue vinyl in front of me; we drove home to the other side of the river, El RÃo Grande, big river; me drinking my Coke, looking out at children dashing between cars selling white and green Chiclets, my grandmother quiet in black beside me, her own country, quiet in her mouth; and Mother’s uncle, up front with her, talking, as they always did, him with both hands on the big shiny steering wheel, driving over the JuÃ¡rez bridge, in the six o’clock sun.
Born and raised in El Paso, Marian Haddad is a poet and writer now living in San Antonio.